George Jowett: Strength Pioneer
by John C. Grimek (1988)
Exercising with weights to improve one's physical development, or to demonstrate one's prowess in a weightlifting competition was a low key activity in the States during the early part of this century. In Europe, however, weightlifting was accepted and recognized as a major sport.
The general consensus was that if a person had a powerful looking body, he should make use of it by putting his muscles against another in some form of physical combat. On the other hand, there was total disagreement about developing big muscles for "showy" displays.
Nevertheless, it was the British and French who first began matching muscles and physiques against one another in contests, as was first produced in America by Bernarr Macfadden in 1901 and 1903. Those staged in Europe by the French and English were low key and lacked public interest. But when the first Mr. America events made their appearance in 1938 and 1939, interest grew, and muscular physiques became an accepted display, surpassing even the ancient Grecians who were the first to recognize and propound the "sound mind in a sound body" principle which ultimately caused physique displays to flourish.
It's true, physique displays and competition have hit a new high today. But earlier, when Milo Barbell Company, the first manufacturer of weights, began making barbells for exercising and lifting, only a handful of men were gutsy enough to adopt them for improving themselves. They invariably denied it. Those who publicly admitted using them to build up and get stronger were imports from abroad.
It was Sandow who gave weight training the first big push when he arrived in America around 1910 and performed a number of strength demonstrations. His displays and performances definitely encouraged others to begin weight training as a way of improving their physiques . . . and many did.
It was a start.
Because Milo Barbell Company wanted to sell more weight training equipment the company began publishing a small magazine called STRENGTH in 1903. It featured stories about strongmen and provided weight training instructions for the beginner and for those who needed more advanced training.
About this time, Bernarr Macfadden, who was known then as the "Father of Physical Culture," was also publishing a magazine bearing that name. His magazine featured mostly calisthenics, diet and a healthful living approach. Advertisements began appearing in the publications offering "Train-By-Mail" courses. However, only STRENGTH magazine, which was now enlarged to bigger format, contained muscle building instruction along with advice for the avid lifter.
The muscle-building scene was on its way.
STRENGTH publishers needed a good man to manage their magazine and offered the position to one Ottley Coulter, then a powerful all-around lifter. Coulter, however, was busy with other matters and could not accept but he did recommend another person: George F. Jowett, who was living in the Pittsburgh area and working as a meat cutter. Jowett was a rugged, husky-looking individual, interested in all aspects of the iron game. He readily accepted the position.
The magazine seemed to flourish because of its weight training features. Jowett's influence had an impact on all weight training devotees, and he came up with a number of training ideas for developing rugged bodies and packing power into the muscles. In fact, he even founded an original association (long before the AAU was affiliated with weightlifting) which he called the American Continental Weight Lifting Association (ACWLA). It was the first organization of its kind which sponsored lifting contests and other demonstrations of power. Those who joined received a small lapel pin showing a figure (of Henry Hall) doing a dumbbell press with the ACWLA etched underneath. This pin identified the men who used weights. There were no more denials. Jowett succeeded in banding this group together.
Jowett was now the "man of the hour" an began demanding more and more money for his services. His demands, however, were denied. He threatened to give up his position, but the publishers weren't moved. They secretly offered the job to his assistant, one Mark Berry, a young, enthusiastic lifter, who accepted. Because of his interest and dedication, Berry was eventually nominated as coach for the 1932 Olympic team and again in 1936.
Jowett went on to other successful business ventures. He started publishing his own magazine, called MAN POWER. It was similar to the smaller size that Milo Barbell Company first used for STRENGTH. It wasn't published regularly and dealt mainly with exercise and strength. He was selling various types of muscle building items and some courses that he compiled for those who needed such instructions. He also wrote several books that were beautifully bound. His first volume, The Key to Might & Muscle, written while still with the Milo company in 1926, was considered his best.
It was during this time, in the late '20s, that I communicated with him by mail that I got to know him. He always sent a personal answer. Naturally, I appreciated whatever advice he offered and at his request, I submitted some snapshots for his evaluation. The best advice he ever gave me was his strength building supporting exercises. This principal, which I believe was revealed when he edited STRENGTH magazine during the mid-20s, was THE TRUE FORERUNNER OF ISOMETRICS.
In one of his letters, he described a series of strength exercises that I put into practice immediately There were 8 to 10 various holds, but for my particular purpose I elected to do about 3 or 4. These were: holding a weight off the chest, holding a weight overhead with straight arms, and doing a one arm support alternating with the right and left arms - but handling a much heavier weight than I was capable of lifting. True, I didn't nor was I told to begin with such impossible weights, but to gradually increase the load and to sustain holding the weight until I was forced to rest. Yes, the weight was suspended from rafters by heavy, strong chains.
I liked this style - holding weights that I never dreamed of handling. However, one day while I was demonstrating this method to some friends, I allowed the weight to come down rather hard on the chains, causing the whole house to rattle as if it were having an earthquake. In fact, my friends were quite startled! I was concerned as well because the next day I purchased a heavier chain and made some safety loops. Just in case something happened, I would have enough time to get away before the weights crushed me . . . I'm talking about real HEAVY weights . . . slightly over 1,000 pounds. It was that kind of weight that shook the house.
After that, I was always more careful.
I must admit that such training did produce strength. However, as I got stronger all over, and as a result my lifting technique, such as it was, suffered even more, I began muscling up the weights instead of relying on speed and skill - a habit difficult to overcome after years of lifting weights without much form.
Although I was fairly well acquainted with Jowett over the years, I never met him personally until one weekend in 1934. I had come to the Philadelphia area to pose for some exercise pictures Mark Berry wanted for the new book, "Your Physique - And Its Culture." I participated in the lifting contests to gain some experience. It was here that I met Jowett one evening while lifting at the YMCA in Philly. I had just made a new light-heavyweight military press record. I didn't even know Jowett was present. But as I walked towards the back of the auditorium, Jowett, who was showing his impressive forearms to some admirers, grabbed me by my arm and congratulated me. I was surprised to see him but thanked him for his compliment.
Later that evening we talked, and I found myself apologizing for my lack of lifting style. He still complimented me on my display of power and said he was sure my technique would improve with practice. I told him that my power came by following those heavy support loads that he had recommended when we exchanged letters. He smiled broadly and said, "That will do it!"
Bob Hoffman had told me that Jowett was powerful. Hoffman had trained with him during the early time Jowett was in York. Jowett did not do much Olympic lifting, but he did swings and a continental style of lifting - a style which I developed for getting weights to my chest instead of the "clean" method. It's done in this manner: Wearing a belt, the weight is pulled up to the abdomen and placed on the belt. But if the weight is super-heavy, you first lift it to your thighs, from there up to the abdomen, with a combination pull and swing you then get it to the chest and you're ready to get it overhead.
It was the only way I could get a heavier weight to my chest,and I often thought that maybe it was this tedious style of lifting that hindered my cleaning ability. There was a time when I could clean with one arm nearly as much as I could with both arms, indicating my lack of style. yet many times I would continental 335 to 350. An in those days a lift of 300 pounds was considered a super lift. So with the 1936 Olympics coming up, I knew I had to improve my lifting style if I was going to make the team. I did, winning the Nationals that year.
I was asked to try out for the 1932 Olympics but refused because I didn't have the slightest idea of how to lift. Jowett offered only power building ideas at that time, and up to that point I never even witnessed a lifting event. But I vowed to try in 1936, and the time was approaching. In 1934, I lifted in the New Jersey championships. I had no trouble winning them even without knowing how to lift. Later that year, it was the Nationals in Brooklyn where Hoffman saw me and suggested I come to York and train with the champions.
Bob had decided to push lifting after the '32 Games and publish a magazine dedicated to exercise and lifting. He app-roached Jowett about it, knowing George had some experience when he was the editor of STRENGTH and felt that such an alliance would be good. Jowett was already linked with a large correspondence school in Scranton, Pennsylvania that was selling training courses. He also had a business in Philadelphia selling his training system and exercise equipment.
Nevertheless, he apparently could not turn down Hoffman's opportunity, so the very first issue of STRENGTH & HEALTH was launched in late 1932.
Also, about this time, Bob Hoffman had pictures taken of some of the better York lifters, singly and in groups. Bob later learned that Jowett used the same photos in his own advertisements, and had some sent to the Scranton correspondence school to be used in the flyers they mailed out to potential clients. Bob became upset over this and felt Jowett was taking advantage of the situation. Shortly after that, Jowett left York. However, they parted as friends an remained friends to the very end.
Jowett continued doing business out of Philadelphia an in 1936 launched the first bodybuilding magazine with a full color cover - the first of its kind. It was an attractive issue and better than anything published up to that time. He got together a number of well-qualified writers and Ph.D. authors and the magazine looked like a real winner. And for a time it was. Then just as it started, it folded just as fast after only a dozen or so issues. Obviously there were some money problems. Jowett's bodybuilding magazine went the way that STRENGTH and PHYSICAL CULTURE went only a year or two before - out of existence.
I lost contact with Jowett after the magazine went defunct. The Scranton school still sold his training courses, but he seemed to have closed his business in Philadelphia. Later I learned that he returned to Canada from which he immigrated, and though his interest in exercise continued, it was in a very low key manner. He got involved in other jobs, including the St. Lawrence Waterway project, but mostly he spent time writing. He wrote a number of books, some dealing with body development, others that had a religious accent, and some on other subjects. During this time he was involved with another competitor that he felt was trying to exploit him, so he simply refused to do much of anything after that.
Nevertheless, Bob Hoffman called upon him during the early '60s to testify in his behalf in a court case. Jowett accepted and came to York. We gave him a cordial welcome, and he truly enjoyed his stay. The litigation Hoffman was involved in didn't amount to much, and I can't even remember if Jowett was called as a witness. But he stayed around, watched the fellows train and while we enjoyed his company, he seemed to enjoy the environment. A group of us took him out to dinner one evening, and we all had a ball. Jowett seemed genuinely happy. We'd collect around him to listen to his tales. Everyone seemed to enjoy these get-togethers.
One afternoon after some training, I asked if he was doing anything that night. He said he wasn't doing anything, other than going to the hotel and resting. I asked if he'd like to join us at home for dinner. An when I told him my wife was cooking spaghetti for the kids (their favorite), he gladly accepted. The kids ate early and were doing homework, so by the time we got there, everything was quiet. I forgot to buy some wine for dinner but offered George some fine Canadian whiskey. He hesitated, then nodded his head in acceptance. I poured us both a straight shot. He downed his in one gulp, in a he-man's style. I babied mine. He had a few more before my wife called us to dinner.
Quietly she asked me how much she should serve him. I admitted I didn't know but told her to fill up his plate. She did. I felt that he could always leave what he didn't eat. But he finished it all. then my wife asked if he wanted more. "Just a little more," he said. She disregarded that and served another heaping amount. Again he finished the plate. I must admit I admired his capacity. He was amazing. Either he was starved or he enjoyed what he was eating, not to mention a salad and rich desert.
After dinner we sat together in the living room. I was eager to know more about the man. He related many stories but I had to coax him to talk about himself. He admitted that he was not quite as active the last few years but did a little dumbbell training, generally of a light nature. Sometimes he would put a weight across his shoulders and walk around some of the rough terrain where he lived. Nothing serious but enough to make him breathe a little deeper.
Once again I brought up the idea of supporting heavy weights which he had recommended to me years before. He said he believed that supporting heavy weights was the only way to get strong. It strengthened the tendons, ligaments and the the joints, and I agreed with him. Like so many of us, he lamented abo9ut giving up regular training. When I asked whaat sort of treining he did when he and Bob (Hoffman) used to work out together, he just said all the standard, regular exercises: the exercises he had in the courses that the Scranton School sold and sometimes the old Milo courses. He stressed the fact that one should do enough to produce a tingling, relaxed sensation of the muscles and finish off with several deep breaths. It sounded good to me. I often finish in that manner.
I zeroed in on his mighty forearms, asking if he did anything special to augment their development. Somewhat nonchalantly, he took another sip from his glass and said, "No, nothing special, but I did do a lot of gripping exercises, mostly thick-handled bells, block weights and various forms of wrist work." He added, "I always had fairly good forearms. I only made the best of what I had." And believe me, when he flexed his right forearm in the gooseneck position, it was inspiring. After all, the man was in his 60s, and when I think of the great appetite he had, and how he could still handle his drinks, one had to admire him.
I found George Jowett a very likable personality, and when I heard of his passing, I felt like I had lost a longtime friend and advisor.
We might postpone it for a time but eventually we must succumb to that eternal sleep.
So, let's make the best of the present, today and NOW!
Enjoy Your Lifting!